Chinese and Malaysian vessels were locked in a high-stakes standoff for more than one month earlier this year, near the island of Borneo in the South China Sea.
The Malaysian-authorized drill ship, the West Capella, was looking for resources in waters also claimed by Beijing, when a Chinese survey vessel, accompanied by coast guard ships, sailed into the area and began conducting scans, according to satellite images analyzed by the Asia Maritime Transparency Institute (AMTI).
Malaysia deployed naval vessels to the area, which were later backed by US warships that had been on joint exercises in the South China Sea.
Beijing claimed it was conducting “normal activities in waters under Chinese jurisdiction,” but for years Chinese vessels have been accused of hounding countries who try to explore for resources in waters that China claims as its own.
Now, experts say the Chinese ships are adopting increasingly forceful tactics, which risks sparking new conflicts with major regional powers such as Malaysia and Indonesia.
Greg Poling, director of the AMTI, said the countries are more important than ever as Chinese ships expand their reach in the region, mostly due to the advanced construction of Beijing’s artificial islands in the South China Sea.
“(The islands) provide forward basing for Chinese ships, effectively turning Malaysia and Indonesia into front line states,” Poling said. “On any given day, there about dozen coast guard ships buzzing around the Spratly Islands, and about a hundred fishing boats, ready to go.”
The South China Sea is one of the most hotly contested regions in the world, with competing claims from China, Vietnam, Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei and Taiwan and Indonesia.
Beijing’s territorial claims, known as the nine-dash line – owing to the markings printed on Chinese maps of the region – are by far the largest and encompass almost the entirety of the sea, from Hainan Island down to the top of Indonesia. China’s claims have no basis under international law and were found to be invalid in a 2016 international court ruling.
Despite this, from about 2015 the Chinese government began to bolster its territorial ambitions by building artificial islands on reefs and shoals in the South China Sea, and then militarizing them with aircraft strips, harbors and radar facilities.
“These (islands) are bristling with radar and surveillance capabilities, they see everything that goes on in the South China Sea,” Poling said. “In the past, China didn’t know where you were drilling. Now they certainly do.”
Experts say Beijing has created an armada of coast guard and Chinese fishing vessels that can be deployed in the South China Sea to harass other claimant’s ships or sail in politically sensitive areas.